Up from the Totem Poles

Does community art matter?

As part of the Hello to the Hauz! installation a Buraq, a winged-horse with a woman’s face, floats on the waters of the Hauz-i-Shamsi. COURTESY: HARIKRISHNA KATRAGADDA
01 July, 2010

THE SUN HAS DIPPED into the horizon. Evening slips in. The storm has subsided but wayward branches of trees rustle wildly with every burst of wind. We walk through the bylanes of Mehrauli. The stench of poultry mixes with the scent of muskmelon and genda phool. The effect is nauseating.

We walk past a row of open-air shops selling gaudy clothing and spices until we finally stumble upon the ruins of the once-opulent Jahaz Mahal, a palace built in 15th-century Delhi. We’re on the lookout for a Buraq, a  mythical winged-horse—the creature  on whose back the Prophet Mohammed is said to have ridden to heaven. We were told it would be floating on the waters of the Hauz-i-Shamsi, the reservoir adjacent to the Mahal.

About 800 years ago, Sultan Shams-ud-din Iltutmish had a dream in which the Prophet appeared on a winged-horse. The Buraq struck the earth with its hooves and water began to gush out. The Prophet then instructed the Sultan to dig a reservoir at that exact spot. The next morning, the Sultan found the hoof print he had seen in his dream etched into the earth. In 1229, the digging work commenced and the reservoir came to be called the Hauz-i-Shamsi. It single-handedly solved the water problem that had persisted in that region for years.

The hauz isn’t half as resplendent as it must have been centuries ago. The water is laced with algae, and garbage floats over the murky surface. Though built to supply water to the region, today the surrounding neighbourhood has to rely on water tankers for its daily requirements.

The stink of urine and rotting garbage is strong. We clench our noses. After minutes spent scanning the putrid surface, we spot the imitation Buraq, floating on the other side of the bank. We’re enthused, but a middle-aged man, wearing a banyan and a lungi, a resident of the neighbourhood, is amused by our sense of wonder and curiosity.

“What is that?” we ask him, feigning ignorance.

“Some kind of computer part,” he says as he spreads his freshly-washed clothes against the railing that fences off the lake.

“Who comes to see it?”

“People from outside. Tourists.”

“What is there to see in it?”

He points to a white-washed building on the other side of the bank and says, “On climbing that building, you have to dial a number. You can do it from here, too, but it’s a better sight from the top of the white building.”

“Have you ever dialled the number?”

“How can I dial it? I don’t have a phone.”

We go over to the other side of the bank to get a better view of the floating Buraq. As instructed, we dial the number (9873562911). It rings. There is silence on the other end. I say, “Hello.” Suddenly, the fairy lights strapped to the placid, three-foot high structure light up. The neighbourhood kids who’d been following us race toward the railing to catch a glimpse of the spectacle. The longer we speak, the longer the lights glow. When we run out of things to say, we urge the kids to sing into the phone.

By now, they are convinced this is magic. They had heard about the glowing Buraq, but this was the first time this set of kids had seen it glow. We had read about the mechanism that triggers off the ‘magic’ act, yet, in that hour of twilight, amid the heat and dust of Mehrauli, we couldn’t contain our sense of wonder, either.

Conceived and designed by 35-year-old artist Vishal Rawlley, the imitation Buraq functions on software that makes use of graphical programming language. A circuit is activated via cellphone and the software detects the decibel level of the voice input. Accordingly, a computer sends the sound information through a wireless radio frequency transmitter to a receiver on the Buraq. Presto! The lights, made up of Chinese, water-proof LED strips, come on.

Khoj’s Telephone Pyaar was a fictional audio project comprising telephonic conversations between young lovers. {{name}}

Those who can’t make it to Mehrauli have the option of calling the Buraq over Skype (“hauz-i-shamsi”) and watching the spectacle unfold via a webcam, on their computer.

The installation is titled Hello to the Hauz!, and is part of an ongoing project, Beam Me Up, organised by the Swiss-based Xcult.org that co-produces and curates Internet art. In his introduction to the project, Anand Vivek Taneja describes part of Rawlley’s process:

He floats on an inflated inner tube, and pedals with his hands and legs… He has to go bathe in Dettol every time he comes out of the lake. This in itself, the mucky part of the artistic process, attracts a large audience, redefining notions of ‘performance art.’ Young students at the local madarsa, old local landholders, local housewives out on their morning and evening walks, the cricket-players, the shopkeepers, all flock to the banks of the lake. Buraq has become familiar, but is still enthrallingly strange.

Once the installation was ready, pamphlets were distributed among local residents explaining the simple procedure involved in accessing it: dial a number and watch the Buraq light up. Since then, at least 30 to 35 people have been calling in every night. There is talk about a possible radio show, or singing contests, the idea being to encourage people to call in so the Buraq glows on a regular basis, and through this audio-visual interface brought about by the innovative use of technology, there could be a renewed consciousness about the historic and ecological value of the hauz.

This installation is one of the most creative instances of community art in India recently because of the intricate manner in which it has managed to involve the residents of the neighbourhood. Instead of going door-to-door preaching about the dying water, the artist chose to prod the community to re-examine its relationship with the pond. Each time a visitor stops by, to dial the Buraq and watch it glow, residents are forced to look at their neighbourhood from the perspective of an outsider. The familiar suddenly becomes strange as the eye scans all the filth and the garbage and other elements that make the place dirty and unsafe. Another bystander, a resident, confessed that he wouldn’t really encourage visitors to come here at night.  “It’s very dangerous. People bring alcohol and sit here,” he said, apologetically.

There is the possibility that the novelty could soon wear off. The Buraq could just as easily lose its magical aura and, like the lake upon which it floats, become prone to neglect and disrepair. Like the man in the lungi and banyan said just as we were about to walk towards the sculpture, “It’s in fashion now. Made for the Games.”

IT'S HARD TO PIN DOWN when exactly the term ‘community art’ came to be used in art writing, but the origin of the form could probably be traced to the earliest totem pole which, as the critic Richard Bartholomew explains, signified a rapport between humans and gods, and symbolised the verticality the tribe aspired to maintain. The totem was both a monument and a repository of the tribe’s secret wishes.

In India, awareness of this artform gathered momentum around a decade ago, and a wide variety of such projects has been conceived and executed since. Increased funding from various institutions has supported the trend.

“It’s important to anchor yourself in the place in which you’re located,” says Pooja Sood, director of Khoj, an international artists’ association with studios in Khirki Gaon, an urban village in South Delhi. Since the studio space in Khirki started hosting resident artists, the institution has been engaged in continuous dialogue with villagers. The result—projects like Telephone Pyaar (February 2009), Khirki kholo (April 2008), and City (In)Visible (March 2008), among others. Sood is referred to as Khoj wali didi in the neighbourhood now. “The residents are aware of what we do, and they don’t mind letting their kids participate,” she says.

Executed by Abhinandita Mathur, Telephone Pyaar was a project produced in collaboration with the village youth. Five to seven teens between 15 and 17 took part in a workshop during which they watched popular films, listened to songs and read text on the subject of love. They also visited and discussed the ‘love sites’ in the neighbourhood, walls that had declarations of love as graffiti, or the secret hide-outs where youth met to spend time with each other, far from their parents’ gaze. The discussions were then reconstructed into fictional phone conversations that the participants had to script and perform.

With Khirki Kholo, artist Aastha Chauhan, having noticed how the neighbourhood children tended to fashion toys from cola caps and cardboard strips, decided to provide them with red clay. For two months, she met the kids in the village park to produce clay toys which were baked once every two weeks and then handed back to the children.

Although for Khoj, the focus remains their immediate setting of Khirki Gaon, community art initiatives in the country haven’t necessarily been confined to specific physical communities. One of the significant projects in this context, Art Karavan International, was the brainchild of performance artist Inder Salim, a man famous for once having chopped off a portion of his little finger and dropping it in the Yamuna to draw attention to the death of the river.

An Art Karavan performance by Inder Salim in Shimla. COURTESY: ABHINANDITA MATHUR

Earlier this year, over a two-month period, a group of Indian and international artists and non-artists travelled from Shantiniketan in West Bengal to New Delhi, as a caravan—India’s first travelling community/performance-art project.

The group set up camp for at least a week at each destination along the way and used their time to interact with communities through music, dance, painting, performance and other media. The project enlisted the support of local artists and non-artists through workshops and other programmes that were designed in collaboration with them. The team also had social work on its agenda, like restoring dilapidated wells and public toilets, planting trees and engaging local people in discussions on how to improve the quality of their lives.

It isn’t easy to measure the success of Art Karavan in quantifiable terms. In many ways, it is the first of its kind in India, at least in the domain of performance-community art.

The project started out as an idea on Inder Salim’s blog. After the initial post, the idea was circulated over the Internet via email and through a range of online media sources, and then, simply by word of mouth.

Funding wasn’t easy to come by, but a range of institutions gradually stepped in and offered accommodation, money or their spaces as potential venues. The event wasn’t formally curated although Salim played the administrator. The central idea remained—to create a mobile space that would bring artists together and would allow them to connect with and reach out to the most marginal of audiences. Kicking off in Shantiniketan this February, the caravan stopped in Kolkata, Ranchi, Patna, Lucknow, Shimla, Jammu and Srinagar before it reached its final destination—New Delhi, where Salim presented a report of the journey to academics, critics and students of art at JNU’s School of Arts and Aesthetics, as well as at Sarai at Centre for Study of Developing Societies.

BEING CREATED OR EXHIBITED within the public domain, community art is  often confused with public art, but the two are very different in concept and purpose. Consider the graffiti on a wall on Mumbai’s Warden Road: “Testicles for Change.” It could be categorised as public art but the Mumbai Wall Project, executed in collaboration with the Municipal Corporation, is most certainly an instance of a community getting together to create art.

The idea behind the Blank Noise Project was simple: to undertand women’s reactions to eve-teasing; an everyday reality for most. {{name}}

Between 15 and 16 August 2009, citizens of Mumbai were invited to bring their brushes, paints, friends and family to decorate a stretch of wall that runs along Tulsi Pipe Road, stretching from Mahim to Dadar. While the quality of the art created was inconsistent, the event, titled The Great Wall of Mumbai, conceived by Dhanya Pilo, was a huge success and had over 300 participants. The wall continues to attract attention, and certainly livens up the bumper-to-bumper ride along the road.

But what happens when an artist chooses to place the work in a gallery instead of a public space? Is the impact compromised?

Touch IV, Navjot Altaf’s most recent exhibition at New Delhi’s Talwar Gallery, was the product of the artist’s interaction with sex workers in the Sangli district of Maharashtra, as well as her preoccupation with the nuances of touch, desire, intimacy, sensation, feeling and anxiety.

Twenty-two television screens stream 22 narratives—differing accounts of sex workers’ experiences with touch, whether desired or not. While the content and the tone of each monologue differ in scope and intensity, the voices are representative of the larger movement spearheaded by Sangram, a 5, 000-member organisation that has, for years, been protesting societal norms that have classified sex work as immoral, deviant behaviour. The most poignant message that comes across from each story is that each of the 22 sex workers would like to voluntarily continue their trade.

These screens are closely hung across the gallery walls, but the sex workers’ stories must be approached through headphones. The prostitute can speak, clearly, but whether she will be heard now depends on the viewer’s willingness to listen.

The most successful instance of community art as a vehicle for social change in recent times has been the Blank Noise Project. A participatory movement born out of Jasmeen Patheja’s idea for her final-year project as a student at the Srishti School of Art Design and Technology, Bangalore, the idea was simple: to understand women’s reactions to eve-teasing, an everyday reality for most.

At the outset, a group of over 60 girls from Srishti were asked to make a mind map with the words ‘public space.’ The most common words that came up were groping, fear, vulnerable, weak, staring, feeling sick. Initially, only 24 girls responded, the rest believed it was normal to expect or experience each of these emotions. As Patheja’s mission statement recounts, “The immediate denial towards eve teasing as an issue triggered the project.”

Based on her findings, Patheja evolved an installation with video, sound and photographs to address the audience as either victims, perpetrators or silent spectators to sexual harassment. Later, in 2003, with a grant from Sarai and with Srishti’s support, Patheja set up Blank Noise, a participatory community art project through which she could take the issue of eve-teasing to the streets and enlist a larger base of participants.

In 2008, Patheja sent out an open invitation to women across the country to send in an item of clothing they were wearing when they were harassed. The project was called I Never Ask for It.  Patheja then exhibited an installation of the collected clothes across various cities, to display her findings: contrary to popular perception, eve-teasing and sexual abuse had nothing to do with either the time of day, or the kind of clothes worn by victims.

The project hoped to create a sense of community between women across the country, and to mobilise them to fight for their right to equal access to public space, without the fear or threat of being harassed; that eve-teasing is a big deal and shouldn’t be brushed aside as a joke or as something women have to ‘deal with’ and not take personally.

Touch IV had a 22-channel video installation as the product of the artist’s interaction with sex workers in the Sangli district of Maharashtra. COURTESY: TALWAR GALLERY, NEW DELHI

Last year, on 8 March, Blank Noise responded to the attacks against women that had taken place between 6 and 28 February in Bangalore through Walk the Night, an event organised in collaboration with the Fearless Karnataka group. It was the perfect occasion, 8 March being International Women’s Day. The group invited women to conduct plays and take part in opinion polls. The idea was to get women to populate the streets post-sunset, the very streets on which women had been abused weeks ago, to spread awareness among citizens, and also to sensitise bystanders, both men and women, to respond more proactively to situations of sexual abuse or harassment. The turnout was significant, and wasn’t restricted to women. Many men held banners and posters protesting the attacks and urged other men to be more sensitive to women.

What set Blank Noise apart from other recent community projects was the simplicity of its approach. The project isn’t constrained by geography or gender; any one—man or woman—from any part of the world can volunteer to be a member. The projects undertaken aren’t focused on women from a specific community or region, or any particular caste or class. The main concern is to get the message across. The message, too, is communicated through all manner of media, mainstream and alternative: email, social networking websites, blogs, newspapers, posters, word-of-mouth, opinion polls, exhibitions, film. The project has managed to sustain itself over the years without losing focus. Today, Blank Noise has evolved into a people’s project where different members adopt different roles every time to keep it going.

With an installation like Hello to the Hauz!, there always lingers the possibility that the initial fascination for the Buraq will wear off, and with it, the impact. But an ongoing collective like Blank Noise, however, works because the art doesn’t overwhelm the intent—the two complement each other.